Manitoba

Unexpected art: 7 pieces of public art you might not have spotted in Winnipeg

Since the City of Winnipeg adopted its Public Art Policy in 2004, Tricia Wasney says the city went from having no plan in place to create public art to a collection Winnipeggers should be proud of.

Winnipeg Arts Council's Public Arts program has nearly 60 works, with more in the wings

Ecobuage at the St. Vital Duck Pond is one of many works of public art you can find around Winnipeg. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Since the City of Winnipeg adopted its Public Art Policy in 2004, Tricia Wasney says the city went from having no plan in place to create public art to a collection Winnipeggers should be proud of.

Wasney is the manager of the public art program with the Winnipeg Arts Council. She defined public art as art that is in the public space, and accessible to most people for free most of the time.

"It's a way of experiencing art that isn't just about having to go in and see it in another place," Wasney said. "It's also about sort of celebrating the city."

The works — nearly 60 in total, with many more in the wings — are scattered throughout Winnipeg. You can stumble upon them without meaning to as you go about daily business, or you can seek them out in guided tours with the Arts Council.

If you're tempted to take yourself on a tour or want to know more about the art in your midst, here are a few places to start.

1. Écobuage

You might have already seen Écobuage at its site beside the duck pond in St. Vital Park. You might have actually cooked hotdogs on it.

"We were interested in the idea of fire as it relates to the prairie landscape," said Liz Wreford.

Ecobuage is at the St. Vital Duck Pond. (Aidan Geary/CBC)

Écobuage is the French term for a controlled burn, Wreford said, and the team embraced the idea as a way to celebrate fire.

The project is actually four small firepits and several long, rectangular planters filled with prairie grasses, arranged around a six-metre fireplace structure that tapers at the top. All the containers are made of weathering steel and surrounded by limestone blocks to sit on.

Wreford is the principal landscape architect for Public City Architecture in Winnipeg. In 2014, she worked with her then-firm, Plain Projects, and Winnipeg graphic design firm Urban Ink to create Écobuage after the Winnipeg Arts Council put out a call to artists to create a firepit in the park.

Wreford said she was happy to see the piece in use the moment it opened.

That's sort of part of the magic of public art. You have to give it away.- Écobuage artist Liz Wreford

"People sort of rushed right in there and started cooking hotdogs, and we didn't even get one picture without people in there, which was amazing," she said.

Since the project opened, Wreford said she's not sure if the people using the firepits are thinking about the concepts the team put into them.

"If people are there and we've created something that they love and that they can use and they kind of identify with, in some way — even if it is just sort of a symbol of a meeting place — I don't know if it matters if they know exactly why we designed it that way," she said.

"I think we're always happy to let people interpret it however they want to, and that's sort of part of the magic of public art. You have to give it away."

2. Table of Contents

Tucked in Wolseley's Vimy Ridge Memorial Park on Portage Avenue, Table of Contents is a monument that doesn't look like a monument.

Table of Contents is a long table with three different levels, Aquino said, intended to contrast with the typical vertical form of a monument. (SPMB)

Eduardo Aquino and Karen Shanski's 2006 project is the culmination of the Winnipeg Arts Council's first-ever call-to-artists for public art, according to Aquino.

Artists were asked to create a piece of public art with a memorial aspect, referencing other works memorializing the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, for which the park is named.

The top of Table of Contents is covered in quotations sourced from community members voicing opinions on the park itself in the language of their choice, including Tagalog, Portuguese, French, English and Braille. (SPMB Projects)
Aquino and Shanski deliberately set out to do the exact opposite, he said.

"Traditional monuments in public space always tend to honour white men, heroic acts and [are] often vertical," Aquino said.

"We were picking up all the cues from the traditional monument. Instead of honouring white men, we wanted to find something that would be honouring everybody. If traditional monuments are [typically] vertical ... we wanted to make it compressed to the ground and close to everybody, instead of imposing on everybody.

"Instead of celebrating war, we wanted to celebrate everyday. What's the everyday? The everyday was the everyday life of the people who lived around the park."

The work is a long aluminum table with different levels for standing and sitting, and a third level designed for children. The top is covered in quotations sourced from community members voicing opinions on the park itself in the language of their choice, including Tagalog, Portuguese, French, English and Braille.

Aquino's work has been featured in cities across Canada, but he said Table of Contents is still one of the projects he considers most successful, because of the way the community has embraced it.

"For them, it's just a picnic table, right?" he said. "But one thing that definitely arrives to them ... is that they recognize it's a different kind of table and they recognize there's a different kind of meaning behind the table."

3 and 4. Sentinel of Truth and Waterfall #2

These two projects aren't actually connected, but you can find them both at the Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg — if you know where to look.

Waterfall #2 by Theresa Himmer is mounted on the side of the Millennium Library at the intersection of Graham Avenue and Smith Street. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Waterfall #2 is mounted a couple of storeys up on the outside of the library at the corner of Graham Avenue and Smith Street. From afar, it looks like a glittering, digital waterfall on an LCD screen, but it's actually a whole lot of large sequins in various shades of blue.

"You have to look up," Wasney said. "If the wind is blowing, it shimmers as if there is a waterfall coming down the wall."

The piece is by Danish artist Theresa Himmer, who is now based in Reykjavik, Iceland. Waterfall #1 doesn't exist anymore, but it was a temporary installation in Reykjavik. The second edition was commissioned by the nuna (now) Icelandic festival in Winnipeg and completed in 2015.

Sentinel of Truth behind the Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg was designed by Winnipeg-based graphic designer Darren Stebeleski and completed in 2012. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)
If you look down from Waterfall #2 and walk behind the library, you'll find Sentinel of Truth.

The long, low wall of weathering steel was designed by Winnipeg graphic designer Darren Stebeleski in response to a Winnipeg Arts Council call-to-artists that requested a fence around the courtyard behind the library.

The wall is covered in small, stainless steel insets with fragments of quotations written on them. The quotes come from books, poems and songs, including Jeannette Armstrong's Slash and a line from the song Plea From A Cat Named Virtute by the Weakerthans.

"He called it Sentinel of Truth because he really believes that libraries are the protectors of truth and they're something that we need to really embrace," Wasney said.

Fragments of quotations from books, poems and songs are written on stainless steel insets in the Sentinel of Truth. This inset is a portion of a song by Winnipeg musician John K. Samson. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

5. YOU YOU + YOU

Jacqueline Metz and Nancy Chew say YOU YOU + YOU is actually an instrument, played by many hands, creating a song made of music and light.
YOU YOU + YOU features 11 handprints sunk into the surface of a tall, slim pillar called the talking stick. (Winnipeg Arts Council)

The multimedia project is built into the United Way building at 580 Main St. To look at, it's a ground-level pillar with 11 handprints sunk into its surface, standing in front of an 18-metre wall with 11 circular lights — which form the word "you" in Braille.

The piece is at its best when people play with it, the artists say.

Without being told to, people know to fit their hands into the prints on the pillar, called "the talking stick," Chew said.

When they do, moisture sensors in the handprints respond to liquid in their body and trigger a musical note, as well as lighting up a point of light.

"There's no how-to. Nothing there says, you know, 'Please play me,'" Chew said. "It just does it on its own because it's so iconic, the handprint."

The Vancouver-based artists have a soft spot for Winnipeg that prompted them to respond to the call-to-artists, Metz said. They were excited by how it was received.

"There was this woman who came up … and I remember her saying, 'This is what [Main] Street needs. It needs music,'" Chew said.

The original call-to-artists just requested art for the 18-metre wall, but Metz and Chew wanted to bring in a ground-level component as well.

"We felt that United Way was about the human scale and about humanity and also about community [and] interaction," Metz said. "There's kind of this play of a lofty ideal and a real hands-on [element.]"

The artists challenge Winnipeggers to compose and record a song using the project and post it online.

"I think one thing we hope for is that they take pleasure in playing it and that they take pleasure in playing it with others and sharing it with others," Metz said. "Because that's really the whole meaning of the thing, is the shared experience of making something beautiful."

6. Close Commons

Gurpreet Sehra calls public art "a wonderful challenge."

The Winnipeg artist unveiled Close Commons in September 2015, following a long process of community consultations with people who use Adsum Park in The Maples, where the piece is located.

Gurpreet Sehra unveiled Close Commons in September 2015, following a long process of community consultations with people who use Adsum Park in the Maples, where the piece is located. (Winnipeg Arts Council)

"You do have to think bigger and broader, and to understand sort of the needs of the community where the artwork is going to be," she said.

It's just an idea of sort blending homeland with a new homeland.- Gurpreet Sehra , artist

Close Commons was Sehra's response to two main objectives she identified through surveying community members, often in Punjabi — which Sehra speaks — or translated from Tagalog.

Residents told her they wanted somewhere to sit while their kids played and they wanted their park to be more beautiful. They also said they wanted cover from sun and rain, but Sehra said she couldn't squeeze it in on the budget she had.

"[I wanted] to create a beautiful, sort of reflective space, especially where there isn't any public art … whatsoever, sort of in that whole general area," she said.

The piece is composed of two curved benches forming a loose semicircle. The granite seats of the benches are carved with an ornate floral pattern inspired by traditional Indian and Asian temples. The backrests are aluminum, shaped into the enormous leaves of the bur oak tree, which is native to southern Manitoba.

"It's just an idea of sort blending homeland with a new homeland," she said. "Sort of the immigrant experience of trying to meld these two things together."
The granite seats of Close Commons are carved with an ornate floral pattern inspired by traditional Indian and Asian temples. The backrests are in the shape of the enormous leaves of the bur oak tree, which is native to southern Manitoba. (Winnipeg Arts Council)

Sehra said the experience of making the project wasn't as solitary as making art that's intended to be looked at, instead of sat on.

"It's definitely more challenging than just creating your own work or creating work that isn't tied to the idea of something that's permanent, something that's going to be there for a really long time," she said.

"There's sort of an added responsibility to public art and this work."

7. Light Through

If you look at Bernie Miller's Light Through in daylight, you'll see a series of small perforations in 16 stainless steel blocks on the Disraeli Bridge.

But come back at night and you'll see it for what it is: a series of historical photographs of the bridge and its surroundings, displayed as light shines through the small openings in the steel.

"The hope is that the work would operate as a 'discovery' piece," Miller wrote in an email to CBC.

Light Through is a series of photographs displayed as light shines through small holes in stainless steel structures on the Disraeli Bridge. (Winnipeg Arts Council)

Miller completed the 18-month project in 2013, which he says was inspired by Winnipeg-born philosopher Marshall McLuhan's musings on media and the interplay between the old and the new.

The photographs are a blend of archival images of the bridge's construction in 1959 and contemporary snapshots, taken by Winnipeg photographer William Eakin in collaboration with Miller.

Miller said the piece isn't meant to convey a specific idea, but he hopes people discover some significance in it on their own.

"I hope that for the community, living with this artwork over the years, they will be somewhat intrigued by piecing together the collection of images, both historic and current, and slowly come to the conclusion that it is not just a random collection of photo-based imagery," he wrote.

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